Arms sales to Saudis leave American fingerprints on Yemen’s carnage

CAIRO — When a Saudi F-15 warplane takes off from King Khalid air base in southern Saudi Arabia for a bombing run over Yemen, it is not just the plane and the bombs that are American. American mechanics service the jet and carry out repairs on the ground. American technicians upgrade the targeting software and other classified technology, which Saudis are not allowed to touch. The pilot has likely been trained by the United States Air Force. And at a flight operations room in the capital, Riyadh, Saudi commanders sit near American military officials who provide intelligence and tactical advice, mainly aimed at stopping the Saudis from killing Yemeni civilians.

American fingerprints are all over the air war in Yemen, where errant strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have killed more than 4,600 civilians, according to a monitoring group. In Washington DC, that toll has stoked impassioned debate about the pitfalls of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who relies on American support to keep his warplanes in the air.

Saudi Arabia entered the war in 2015, allying with the United Arab Emirates and a smattering of Yemeni factions with the goal of ousting the Iran-allied Houthi rebels from northern Yemen. Three years on, they have made little progress. At least 60,000 Yemenis have died in the war, and the country stands on the brink of a calamitous famine.

For American officials, the stalled war has become a strategic and moral quagmire. It has upended the assumptions behind the decades-old policy of selling powerful weapons to a wealthy ally that, until recently, rarely used them. It has raised questions about complicity in possible war crimes. And the civilian toll has posed a troubling dilemma: how to support Saudi allies while keeping the war’s excesses at arm’s length.

The Pentagon and State Department have denied knowing whether American bombs were used in the war’s most notorious airstrikes, which have struck weddings, mosques and funerals. However, a former senior State Department official said that the United States had access to records of every airstrike over Yemen since the early days of the war, including the warplane and munitions used.

At the same time, American efforts to advise the Saudis on how to protect civilians often came to nothing. The Saudis whitewashed an American-sponsored initiative to investigate errant airstrikes and often ignored a voluminous no-strike list.

American military officials posted to the coalition war room in Riyadh noticed that inexperienced Saudi pilots flew at high altitudes to avoid enemy fire, military officials said. The tactic reduced their risk but transferred it to civilians, who were exposed to less accurate bombings.

“In the end, we concluded that they were just not willing to listen,” said Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state. “They were given specific coordinates of targets that should not be struck and they continued to strike them. That struck me as a willful disregard of advice they were getting.” Yet American military support for the airstrikes continued.

While American officials often protested civilian deaths in public, two presidents ultimately stood by the Saudis. President Obama gave the war his qualified approval to assuage Saudi anger over his Iran nuclear deal. President Trump embraced Prince Mohammed and bragged of multibillion-dollar arms deals with the Saudis.

As bombs fell on Yemen, the United States continued to train the Royal Saudi Air Force. In 2017, the United States military announced a $750-million program focused on how to carry out airstrikes, including avoiding civilian casualties. The same year, Congress authorized the sale of more than $510 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, which had been suspended by the Obama administration in protest of civilian casualties.

American support for the war met stiff headwinds last fall, when congressional fury over the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi combined with worries over civilian deaths in Yemen. In response, the Trump administration ended American air-to-air refueling of coalition warplanes over Yemen in Novem-ber but has otherwise continued to support the war. In December, the Senate voted to end American military assistance to the war altogether, a sharp rebuke to the Trump administration, but the bill died when the House refused to consider it.

The civilian toll is still rising. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, November was the most violent month in Yemen since the group began tracking casualties in January 2016. There were 3,058 war-related fatalities in November, it said, including 80 civilians killed in airstrikes.

Inside the State Department, there have been longstanding worries about potential legal liability for the American role in the war. In August, the United Nations’ human rights body determined that some coalition airstrikes were likely war crimes.

Obfuscation and impunity continue to characterize the coalition’s airstrike campaign. The coalition rarely identifies which country carries out an airstrike, although the vast majority are Saudi and Emirati, officials say. In July, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued an order lifting “all military and disciplinary penalties” for Saudi troops fighting in Yemen, an apparent amnesty for possible war crimes.

Short of halting all weapons sales, critics say the United States could pressure the Saudis by curtailing its assistance to the air war. Hundreds of American aviation mechanics and other specialists, working under Defense Department contracts, keep the Saudi F-15 fleet in the air. In 2017, Boeing signed a $480 million contract for service repairs to the fleet. But after the resignation of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the Defense Department is headed by acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, an arms industry insider. Mr. Shanahan spent more than three decades at the F-15 manufacturer, Boeing, which has earned further billions from lucrative service contracts in Saudi Arabia.

– edited from The New York Times, December 25, 2018
PeaceMeal, January/February 2019

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Bomb in Yemen school bus attack was supplied by the United States

The bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition in a devastating attack on a school bus in Yemen was sold as part of a U.S. State Department-sanctioned arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Working with local Yemeni journalists and munitions experts, CNN has established that the weapon that left dozens of children dead on August 9 was a 500-pound, laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of the major U.S. defense contractors.

The bomb is very similar to the one that wreaked devastation in an attack on a funeral hall in Yemen in October 2016 in which 155 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. The Saudi coalition blamed “incorrect information” for that strike, admitted it was a mistake, and took responsibility.

In March of that year, a strike on a Yemeni market — this time reportedly by a U.S.-supplied, precision-guided MK 84 bomb — killed 97 people.

In the aftermath of the funeral hall attack, former President Barack Obama banned the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia over “human rights concerns.” The ban was overturned by the Trump administration’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March 2017.

As the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition scrambles to investi-gate the strike on the school bus, questions are growing from observers and rights groups about whether the United States bears any moral culpability. The U.S. says it does not make targeting decisions for the coalition, which is fighting a Houthi rebel insurgency in Yemen, but it does support its operations through billions of dollars in arms sales, the refueling of Saudi combat aircraft, and some sharing of intelligence.

The latest strike has left the community in Yemen’s northern Saada governorate reeling. The bomb’s impact, as it landed on the bus full of excited schoolchildren on a day trip, was devastating. Of the 51 people who died in the airstrike, 40 were children, Houthi Health Minister Taha al-Mutawakil said, and of the 79 people wounded, 56 were children.

“I saw the bomb hit the bus,” one witness said. “It blew it into those shops and threw the bodies clear to the other side of those buildings. We found bodies scattered everywhere.” Some of the bodies were so mutilated that identification was impossible.

Coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki said, “The democratically elected government of Yemen has been displaced by an Iranian-backed insurgency by minority Houthi militias. The coalition is in Yemen with the support of the U.N. Security Council to restore the legitimate government. The coalition is operating in accordance with international humanitarian law, taking all practical measures to minimize civilian casualties. Every civilian casualty is a tragedy.”

Saudi Arabia denied targeting civilians and defended the incident as a “legitimate military operation” and a retaliatory response to a Houthi ballistic missile from the day before.

The United Nations has called for a separate investigation into the strike, one of the deadliest since Yemen’s war began in early 2015. Since then, the Saudi-led coalition has battled rebels in support of exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

There have been growing calls in Congress for Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, to do more to cut civilian deaths in Yemen, where three years of conflict have taken a terrible toll.

On August 13, President Trump signed a defense spending bill that includes a clause requiring the Pentagon and State Department to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another key coalition member, are doing enough to reduce civilian casualties. The report must be submitted to Congress within 180 days and then annually for the next two years.

The conflict in Yemen has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people — three-quarters of the population — in desperate need of aid and protection, according to the U.N.

– edited from CNN, August 17, 2018
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2018

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Shielding Saudis on Yemen atrocities

Shireen Al-Adeimi

Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of states in a war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who toppled Yemen’s inter-nationally recognized government in 2015. Two-and-a-half years of brutal war have inflicted slaughter on innocent children, women and men by bombs, famine and disease.

While rich Arab states bombard the Middle East’s poorest country, creating the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and an unprecedented cholera outbreak, the U.S. government (starting with the Obama administration and continuing with Trump’s) has continued to support them not only through the sale of weapons, but also through mid-air refueling, targeting intelligence, and other logistical support. The average American, however, remains oblivious to the inconvenient truth that the United States has been helping Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates destroy a sovereign country that posed no threat to anyone.

We can no longer stand by and watch as Yemeni children die of curable diseases like cholera (with 750,000 cases and counting) because they can’t access clean water or of hunger because their parents can’t afford what little food is available.

We can no longer watch as Yemeni civilians are killed by U.S.- supported Saudi and Emirati airstrikes that target homes, schools, funeral gatherings and hospitals alike. We must face the U.S. role in committing what may amount to ongoing war crimes in Yemen.

Shireen Al-Adeimi is a doctoral candidate and instructor at Harvard University. Her article is edited from, October 5, 2017, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2017.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Secret wartime deal drawn up a century ago still shapes the Middle East today

Shirin Jaafari
Public Radio International, May 16, 2016

A secret wartime deal drawn up a century ago by two men — one British, one French — continues to reverberate through modern conflicts. Named after the men who came up with it, the Sykes-Picot agreement divided up the Middle East between France and Britain. Sir Mark Sykes was appointed by the British government and François Georges-Picot by the French.

According to Robin Wright, who has written about this for The New Yorker, Sykes famously explained in 1915 that “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre [in what is now Israel] to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk [in Iraq].” So the lines were drawn without much consideration for local identities and political preferences.

At the time, the world was in the middle of World War I, and it was clear that the Ottoman Empire was about to collapse. “Both the British and the French wanted to make sure that they created spheres of influence in which they could play a role in the modern Middle East and creating its future,” explains Wright.

Wright points out, however, that Sykes’ and Picot’s map is not the Middle East we see today. Rather, it was the beginning of a process of defining what the region looked like that played out over years. Eventually, the countries within the region became independent, leading to a tremendous period of instability.

Wright says. “Iraq was in many ways almost as unstable, with a series of coups that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein to power.”

Sykes and Picot are often blamed for the many tragic events that followed their agreement, but Wright believes that is unfair. She says the problems the region grapples with didn’t come only from the arbitrary creation of borders; these countries have also suffered from government repression.

“These were not countries in which civil society was allowed to bloom, [in which] diverse political parties were nurtured,” she says. In other words: The region had problems long before the Sykes-Picot agreement, and will continue to wrestle with problems for years ahead.

Seeking to understand what Middle Easterners would like the region to look like, in 2013 Wright spent a year speaking with people there. She asked them what their map of the Middle East would look like today.

“It was fascinating how people in the region, in looking at their future, deciding for themselves, carved out 14 different nations from the five that exist today,” she says. Identity politics, she says, are even more vibrant today than a century ago.

– PeaceMeal, July/August 2016

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Echoes of 1991 Gulf War linger on in Mideast: Analysis

Jon Gambrell
The Associated Press

The 1991 Gulf War saw only 100 hours of ground fighting as U.S. forces entered Kuwait to end the Iraqi occupation, but echoes of that conflict have lingered for decades in the Middle East.

The war pushed America into opening military bases in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, drawing the anger of an upstart militant named Osama bin Laden and laying the groundwork for al-Qaida attacks leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. Saddam Hussein, demonized as being worse than Adolf Hitler by President George H.W. Bush, would outlast his American rival in power until Bush’s son launched the 2003 American-led invasion that toppled the Iraqi dictator.

Now, 25 years after the first U.S. Marines swept across the border into Kuwait, American forces are battling the extremist Islamic State group, born out of al-Qaida, in the splintered territories of Iraq and Syria. The Arab allies that joined the 1991 coalition are fighting their own conflicts at home and abroad, as Iran vies for greater regional power following a nuclear deal with world powers.

Iraq itself is now fragmented and war-torn to a degree few could have imagined after that 1991 U.S. victory. The IS jihadis have imposed their rule over many of the Sunni-dominated areas of the country; Kurds in the north have their own virtual mini-state; and Shiites — many of them allied to Iran — lead the government in Baghdad.

In all, the United States finds itself in the quandary it hoped to avoid back in 1991.

“Had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit — we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs for that occupation,” the late U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, wrote in his memoirs.

Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, angry that the tiny neighbor and the United Arab Emirates had ignored OPEC quotas, which Saddam claimed cost his nation $14 billion. Saddam also accused Kuwait of stealing $2.4 billion by pumping crude from a disputed oil field and demanded that Kuwait write off an estimated $15 billion of debt that Iraq had accumulated during its 1980s war with Iran.

Fearing Saudi Arabia could be invaded next, U.S. officials moved quickly to deploy troops to the region. After months of negotiations and warnings, the U.S. launched its assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait on February 24, 1991.

In purely military and political terms, the first Gulf War marked a tremendous success for the U.S., which was still haunted by Vietnam. America suffered 148 combat deaths during the entire conflict, while 467 troops were wounded out of more than 500,000 deployed, according to the Defense Department. The U.S. held together an allied army, its war effort was supported by a number of United Nations resolutions, and the conflict cemented its position as the sole world power following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

America’s Arab allies also footed much of the bill for the $61 billion war, with both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait contributing some $16 billion, while the United Arab Emirates offered $4 billion, according to U.S. congressional reports. Japan and Germany together contributed another $16 billion, while South Korea gave $251 million. The U.S. covered the rest.

The key players in the Arab world at the time of the conflict are now long gone. Saudi King Fahd died in 2005. A popular uprising toppled Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Syria’s totalitarian ruler Hafez Assad, a longtime U.S. foe who joined the Gulf War effort to reap billions in aid and diplomatic benefits, died in 2000. His son, President Bashar Assad, still clings to power amid a five-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and flooded Europe with tens of thousands fleeing violence across the region.

In Israel, ... then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a hard-liner, held back from retaliating at the request of Bush, who feared losing Arab support for the war. Though American aid to Israel exceeds $3 billion a year, relations have been strained over stalled Palestinian peace talks.

Yet despite seeing his forces routed from Kuwait, Saddam clung to power and survived an uprising by both Shiites and Kurds following the war. The U.S. and its allies began to patrol a northern and southern no-fly zone to protect the Shiites and the Kurds while Saddam remained a thorn in the side of American politics for more than a decade.

“I miscalculated,” Bush said in a December 1995 interview.

It would take President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion to end Saddam’s reign, coming amid the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. In its aftermath, al-Qaida in Iraq would arise and be put down by a U.S. military surge, coupled with the support of Sunni tribesmen. But as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and Baghdad stopped supporting the Sunni tribesmen, the Islamic State group emerged from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq and, in 2014, took control of about a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Today, the U.S. finds itself mired in a long war, as feared by Schwarzkopf and others who oversaw Operation Desert Storm.

Oil prices, which sparked Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, have dropped to under $30 a barrel from more than $100 in just a year and a half. The cause, in part, is the same OPEC overproduction the late dictator Saddam Hussein railed against across the splintered Middle East.

Jon Gambrell, an AP reporter since 2006, has covered the Middle East from Cairo and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, since 2013. His article was published February 22, 2016, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2016.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.).

U.N. highlights Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on detention of peaceful activists

A U.N. Working Group has determined that the Saudi Arabian authorities have arbitrarily detained nine peaceful activists in blatant violation of international law, in an Opinion that sets out damning evidence of Saudi Arabia’s utter disregard for human rights, Amnesty International charged.

Amnesty has repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of all nine activists, whom it considers prisoners of conscience. They include members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association the now disbanded Adala Center for Human Rights.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities have pursued a vicious crackdown on peaceful activists in what the Working Group calls “a reprisal for their work of protecting and defending human rights” and “grave and systematic violations of the norms related to the right to fair trial.”

The Opinion adopted by the Working Group found that all nine activists were arbitrarily detained and deprived of liberty in contravention of several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This conclusion is particularly alarming given Saudi Arabia’s commitments as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council to uphold the highest standards of human rights.

“Instead of punishing human rights defenders and silencing bloggers and lawyers, Saudi Arabia’s authorities should seek to address the yawning gulf between its dire human rights record and its responsibilities as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council.”

The Working Group also urged the Saudi Arabian authorities to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

– edited from Amnesty International, November 24, 2015
PeaceMeal, March/April 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.).

Hatred between Sunnis, Shiites abounds in Mideast

CAIRO — It’s not hard to find stereotypes, caricatures and outright bigotry when talk in the Middle East turns to the tensions between Islam’s two main sects. Shiites are described as devious, power-hungry corruptors of Islam. Sunnis are called extremist, intolerant oppressors. Hatreds between the two are now more virulent than ever in the Arab world because of Syria’s civil war.

On June 23, officials said four Shiites in a village west of Cairo were beaten to death by Sunnis in a sectarian clash unusual for Egypt. Hard-line clerics and politicians on both sides in the region have added fuel, depicting the fight as essentially a war of survival for their sect.

But among the public, views are complex. Some sincerely see the other side as wrong — whether on matters of faith or politics. Others see the divisions as purely political, created for cynical aims. Even some who view the other sect negatively fear sectarian flames are burning dangerously out of control. There are those who wish for a return to the days, only a decade or two ago, when the differences did not seem so important and the sects got along better, even intermarried. And some are simply frustrated that there is so much turmoil over a dispute that dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

The Sunni-Shiite split is rooted in the question of who should succeed Muhammad in leading Muslims after his death in 632. Shiites say the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was his rightful successor but was cheated when authority went to those the Sunnis call the four “Rightfully Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and, finally, Ali.

Sunnis are the majority across the Islamic world. But in the Middle East, Shiites have strong majorities in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain, with significant communities in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other parts of the Gulf. Both consider the Quran the word of God, but there are distinctions in theology and religious practice between the two sects. Some are minor, others are significant.

Shiites, for example, believe Ali and a string of his descendants, the Imams, had not only rightful political authority after Muhammad but also held a special religious wisdom. Most Shiites believe there were 12 Imams — many of them “martyred” by Sunnis — and the 12th vanished, to one day return and restore justice. Sunnis, on the other hand, accuse the Shiites of elevating Ali to the level of Muhammad himself — incorrectly so, since Shiites agree that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, a central tenet of Islam.

Ismail al-Hamami, a 67-year-old Sunni Palestinian refugee in Gaza, scoffs: “Fourteen centuries after the death of the prophet, in a region full of destruction, killing, occupation, ignorance and disease, you are telling me about Sunnis and Shiites? We are all Muslims. ... You can’t ignore the fact that (Shiites) are Muslims.”

But the bitter disputes of early Islam still resonate. When outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Egypt earlier this year, the sheik of Al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni theology, told him sharply that if the sects are to get along, Shiites must stop “insulting” the “companions of the prophet.”

Associated Press correspondents spoke to Shiites and Sunnis across the region. Amid the variety of viewpoints, they found a public struggling with anger that is increasingly curdling into hatred. But only the most hard-core would say the sectarian differences are reason enough to hate each other. For that, politics is needed.

– edited from The Associated Press, June 23, 2013
PeaceMeal, July/August 2013

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

The Arab Spring is dead: News analysis

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent

ISTANBUL — I called an old friend the other day, a senior adviser to the Iraq government. I said I had been busy with the Arab Spring. “The Arab Spring?” he said. “What’s that? There’s no Arab Spring anymore. That’s over. It is now a big struggle for power.”

He was right. The Arab Spring is over. The days of the protesters with laptops and BlackBerrys in Tahrir Square are gone. Instead, a much bigger struggle is underway, one that goes back centuries that is both a regional battle for dominance and an epic tug of war between Sunnis and Shiites for control of the Middle East and the prophet Muhammad’s legacy.

The front line is now in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 20,000 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests started in March 2011. But it goes back in modern history at least to Iraq — and the United States bears a large part of the responsibility for reopening this Pandora’s Box.

A major factor in the rise of the present struggle came when U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, thus pitting Sunnis against their rival Shiites, who many Sunnis consider infidels who turned against Islamic leaders about 1,400 years ago and have been on the wrong side of Allah’s path since then.

For decades, Saddam and his Sunni minority had imposed their will on Iraq, carrying on a 14-century tradition of Sunnis controlling Mesopotamia despite a Shiite majority. Not surprisingly, in most Sunni regions there has been little appetite for free U.S.-sponsored elections. They knew they would end up being ruled by their enemies.

And that’s what happened. The lasting legacy of America’s involvement in Iraq is essentially an Iranian-allied Shiite government that also happens to be one of the most corrupt on the planet. And Iran is the biggest and most powerful Shiite-majority nation. The Shiites were, of course, delighted.

I remember the moment U.S. troops left their last base in southern Iraq in December 2011. The Iraqis changed its name as the Americans rolled out the gate. It had been called Camp Adder; the Iraqis renamed it “the Imam Ali base,” after the patriarch of Shiite Islam. The Shiites — in both Iraq and Iran — won, and won big.

President George W. Bush, in his now-rare public appearances and interviews, still refuses to acknowledge he did anything to help Iran. But it doesn’t really matter what he thinks. The 200 million people in the Middle East understand that there is a new reality — and that’s what they are battling about now.

Iraqi Sunnis are still seething and sometimes fighting in their stronghold cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. They can’t accept what they consider the tragedy that has befallen their community and don’t understand even now why Washington sent troops across the Atlantic and Indian oceans to help Iran expand a buffer zone beyond its borders.

Enter al-Qaida. Back in the Iraq war days, the radical Sunni group, saw an opportunity to expand. Al-Qaida militants flowed to Iraq to help fellow Sunnis fight Shiites and the Americans who were propping them up. But al-Qaida abused its hosts. Al-Qaida killed Sunni tribesmen because they weren’t fundamentalist enough. The wild-eyed militants flogged Sunnis in Ramadi and Fallujah for minor infractions. It was hardly the behavior of someone who’s claiming to help.

The U.S. military eventually used al-Qaida’s misbehavior against the group, forming a militia of Sunnis who were fed up with the fanatics, often referred to as the “Sons of Iraq.” Al-Qaida lost in Iraq and the Shiite government won. Iran won, too. After the Shiites came to power in Baghdad, Iran increased tourism and business ties with its new Shiite-controlled neighbor.

Of course, concerned observers of the Middle East now have their minds on another Shiite government just to the northwest of Iraq —the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad family isn’t actually Shiite, but Alawite, a secretive Shiite-linked offshoot that makes up about 13 percent of the population. There’s also a sizable Christian community. Iran has effectively adopted the Alawites into their family by forging a long-standing alliance with Assad and his father, Hafez, before him, who ruled Syria from 1971-1990.

In addition, moving further west from Syria, there’s Lebanon. It’s Sunni in the north, Christian in the middle, and Shiite in the south, with each making up about a third of the population. As any Lebanese person will tell you, it’s a volatile mix that has produced recurring cycles of civil war.

Topping the heap in Lebanon are the Shiites, emboldened by their powerful and skilled militia, Hezbollah. Hezbollah is heavily armed and has thousands of rockets pointed at Israel. The weapons mostly come from Iran through Syria or from Syria itself.

So, there it is. The previously isolated Shiite regime in Iran was emboldened by the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. In reaction, the Sunni world became concerned about the upstart Shiite powers, complete with their considerable oil resources and weaponry. And the region, already a tinderbox, became primed for a power struggle.

At first, the current unrest was unrelated to the Sunni-Shiite divide. The Arab regimes in 2011 were, in many ways, legacies of Israel’s victories in 1948 and 1967. Faced with the catastrophic defeats, military strongmen grew in power. Over time they became corrupt. By 2011, most Arab governments were brutal, uncreative and thoroughly uninspiring.

The Egyptian regime was similarly inflexible and out of touch. Hosni Mubarak had been an effective president in his early years and relatively popular. But by the time protests began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he was 82 years old, his military cohorts and family had become increasingly corrupt, he had been president for nearly three decades, and he was insistent that his bland son take over from him.

The region’s dictators were caught off guard by the student demonstrators, who had mobile communications and could communicate directly with hundreds of millions of supporters though social media. The first eruption came in Tunisia, which exploded in protests in December 2010. In Tunisia, lawyers, students and women’s groups protested because of the country’s secret prisons and because the former president’s wife was taking a cut of nearly everyone’s business. Then came Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

 The Arab Spring put the Middle East back in flux and put religious divides back into the spotlight. The rise of religious tensions started in Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, mobilized and easily hijacked the 2011 revolution started by liberals, anarchists, socialists, students, artists and techno-nerds who were joined by millions of the unemployed and disenfranchised. Sunni Islamists, albeit moderate, took over in Tunisia, too. But it is Syria that has become the epicenter of the historic battle between Sunnis and Shiites.

A rebel in Syria about a month ago explained the religious calculation: “We lost Iraq to the Shiites and Iran. We’re going to take Syria for us,” he said. Nearly all of the rebels in Syria are Sunnis and the fighting in Syria remains almost exclusively in Sunni areas. The worst massacres have taken place in Sunni villages surrounded by Alawite towns that remain generally supportive of the Assad regime.

The Syrian government has long found Iran and Hezbollah to be useful allies. Hezbollah is a way to maintain influence in Lebanon, which Syria claims (with some reason) was historically part of Syria before the horribly planned British and French division of the Middle East during and after World War I. But war changes the dynamics between allies.

While Assad’s grip on power weakens, Iran and Hezbollah’s position in Syria grows stronger as their advisers become increasingly dominant. It’s no longer a situation where Hezbollah is just providing arms and intelligence, but appears to have mobilized and is fighting alongside Syrian forces.

And al-Qaida is trying to do in Syria what it failed to accomplish in Iraq. Al-Qaida has learned from its Iraq experience. Sensing an opening, al-Qaida fighters are going into Syria offering money and arms to the rebels, their Sunni brothers. They are going in politely, or at least as politely as al-Qaida can be. They are offering rebels cash, at first with no strings attached. Initial payments tend to be small, around $5,000. It is tiny sum in a war zone, but enough to give strapped rebel units a taste of what’s to come. Al-Qaida also has RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), the weapon rebel commanders seem to value above all others.

What happens next? Syria is likely to become an even bigger battleground for a proxy war between Hezbollah, Sunni rebels, government troops, Iran and al-Qaida. And once Syria collapses, or even before, Lebanon could ignite as well.

My Iraqi friend was right. The Arab Spring no longer exists.

Richard Engel has just returned from his third trip inside Syria since the uprising there began. His article is edited from NBC News, Sept. 7, 2012, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2012.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Saudi warns of Mideast nuclear arms race

DAVOS, Switzerland — An influential member of the Saudi royal family warned January 25 that unless the Middle East becomes a nuclear weapon-free zone, a nuclear arms race is inevitable and could include his own country, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and even Turkey. Prince Turki Al Faisal said the five permanent U.N. Security Council members should guarantee a nuclear security umbrella for Mideast countries that join a nuclear-free zone — and impose “military sanctions” against countries seen to be developing nuclear weapons. “I think that’s a better way of going at this issue of nuclear enrichment of uranium, or preventing Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction,” the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S. and Britain said. “If it goes that route, I think it’s a much more equitable procedure than what has been happening in the last 10 years or so.”

The Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, mainly targeting its defense and nuclear establishment, but Tehran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment and enter negotiations on its nuclear activities. It maintains its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed solely at generating electricity, but the U.S. and European nations believe Iran’s goal is to produce nuclear weapons.

Turki’s proposal could impose sanctions against Iran if there is evidence it is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, which include chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons. But it could also put Israel under sanctions if it doesn’t come clean on its undeclared nuclear arsenal. Israel is widely believed to have an arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons but has avoided confirming or denying their existence.

Israel is not a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has long said a full Arab-Israeli peace must precede such a weapons ban. But at the 2010 NPT review conference, the United States, Israel’s most important ally, said it welcomed “practical measures” leading toward the goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. An Arab proposal for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone was initially endorsed by the 1995 conference reviewing the NPT, but never acted on.

Turki said his answer to American and British diplomats who say Israel won’t accept a nuclear weapons-free zone is “So what?” He cautioned, however, that actually establishing a WMD-free zone will take negotiations in which all the underlying issues in the region, from the establishment of a Palestinian state to the future of the Golan Heights, “will have to be dealt with to make the zone workable.”

Turki warned that if there is no WMD-free zone in the Mideast, “inevitably” there is going to be a nuclear arms race “and that’s not going to be in the favor of anybody.” The Gulf states are committed not to acquire WMD, he said, “but we’re not the only players in town. You have Turkey. You have Iraq, which has a track record of wanting to go nuclear. You have Egypt. They had a very vibrant nuclear energy program from the 1960s. You have Syria. You have other players in the area that could open Pandora’s box.”

Asked whether Saudi Arabia would maintain its commitment against acquiring WMD, Turki said: “What I suggest for Saudi Arabia and for the other Gulf states ... is that we must study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. We can’t simply leave it for somebody else to decide for us.”

– edited from The Associated Press, January 25, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Mideast governments fail to see the scale of change

Most Middle Eastern governments are failing to recognize the significance of the Arab Spring and are responding with repression or merely cosmetic change, Amnesty International reports. Reform movements show no sign of flagging despite bloodshed on the streets and arrests last year. “With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognize that everything has changed,” Philip Luther, Amnesty’s interim Middle East and North Africa director, said in a report.

“The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression,” Luther said. “They want concrete changes to the way they are governed and for those responsible for past crimes to be held to account. But persistent attempts by states to offer cosmetic changes, to push back against gains made by protesters, or to simply brutalize their populations into submission betray the fact that, for many governments, regime survival remains their aim.”

In Syria, there were more than 200 cases of reported deaths in custody by the end of last year, more than 40 times the recent average annual figure, Amnesty said. In Yemen, more than 200 people had been killed in connection with protests while hundreds more died in armed clashes. In Bahrain, it was unclear how committed the government was to implementing reform recommendations.

Amnesty’s report also said that despite the optimism that had greeted the fall of long-standing rulers in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, concern remained that the gains had yet to be cemented by key institutional reforms. In Egypt, Amnesty found that the military rulers had been responsible for abuses that were “in some aspects worse than under Hosni Mubarak.” About 84 people had died under violent suppression between October and December last year, while more civilians had been tried before military courts in one year than under 30 years of his rule, it said.

Amnesty also criticized international powers and regional bodies for inconsistencies in their response to the situations in Libya, Syria and Bahrain, and of failing to grasp the depth of the challenge to entrenched repressive rule. Luther said, “Support from world powers for ordinary people in the region has been typically patchy.”

– edited from Reuters, January 8, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Elias_Chacour.GIF (5058 bytes)Archbishop Elias Chacour speaks of peace in the Middle East

Lauren DeRosa

Elias Chacour is a Melkite Catholic archbishop, an educator and Israeli citizen. He has dedicated himself totally over the last thirty-plus years to efforts for reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians in Israel. He is the founder and president of Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which serves as a site for developing understanding between youths of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. Many students have graduated from the Institutions imbued with a love of peace and justice. Archbishop Chacour has received many international peace awards and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three occasions.

Archbishop Elias Chacour is an Arab Palestinian Christian and citizen of Israel, who grew up walking the hillsides. Chacour is the archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church of Haifa, Akko, Nazareth and the Galilee. As a Christian Palestinian, he has a unique perspective on the difficult and complex situation facing the Middle East.

Chacour is working for reconciliation and peace in the region, especially by building schools — preschool through college — in the Galilean village of Ibillin, where the students and faculty include Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze. He said that at the schools, “We want to open our doors for all of them — Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Druze. We want them to get to know each other as children, as students and to solve problems together.”

His message is one of peace and said he deeply wishes to see the end of violence in the region. “There is no way that peace and security will come without pursuing justice and integrity,” he said.

As he spoke of the region, he touched on both the suffering of Jews during the World War II-era Holocaust, along with the genocide of the Palestinians during the formation of Israel. He does not believe anything can be done to make up for those horrible events, but he believes we must remember them to prevent them from occurring in the future.

He named his first book “Blood Brothers” because the Jews and Palestinians “both pride themselves on being the descendants of an Iraqi citizen, Abraham.” He also wrote, “We Belong to the Land,” which is an urgent appeal for Jews and Palestinians to start learning how to belong together to that land. According to Chacour, neither group accepts that they do not have sole right to the land, and this has led to 63 years of war and unrest in the region.

Chacour tries to be positive, but he does not claim to have a solution to the problem. “I am not a politician,” he said. He sees the role of Palestinian Christians as one of mediation and moderation.

While he is a Palestinian, he believes most importantly in friendship and respect between Israelis and Palestinians. He said, “I want to appeal to every American: if he is a friend of the Jews, he should remain a friend of the Jews, but no more conclude that he has to be an automatic enemy against the Palestinians, and vice versa.”

He spoke of suicide bombers from the Gaza Strip as committing a deplorable act “against themselves, against God and against humanity.” However, he said that the situation in the Gaza Strip is such that “the only thing they can achieve is to grow up in misery, to get married if they can, make children and die, with no future. And that’s what makes an explanation, without any justification, of the suicide bombers.”

 Although he was pained to discuss this fact, he said, “We have to understand the motivations so we can give them the reasons why they should not commit suicide.”

His message that there is an alternative to violence and war in Israel is an important idea he wants to spread in the United States. “I am not making a political speech,” he said in making an argument for mutual respect.

In addition to his many peace awards, Archbishop Chacour was Rotary’s Man of the Year in Israel in 2000.

– edited from Dover-Sherborn Press, August 4, 2011
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2011

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)